Joan Waugh on Grant's and Lee's 'gentlemen's agreement' ending the Civil WarHistorians in the News
tags: Civil War, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Appomattox Campaign
A century and a half ago, a brief encounter between two men, a Northerner and Southerner, altered the course of American history. I don't mean what you probably have in mind; the Lincoln assassination happened five days later. It was the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. For modern Americans, President Lincoln's assassination has eclipsed the surrender that signaled the end of a savage war. But at the time, souvenir hunters emptied the farmhouse in the village of Appomattox Court House, Va., where the surrender was signed; in later years, the victorious Grant would be twice elected president. Joan Waugh is a history professor at UCLA (where Grant's grandson once chaired the geology department), and her award-winning book “U.S. Grant, American Hero, American Myth” puts the spotlight back on an event that helped to knit a riven nation back together.
This surrender was of such magnitude — the effective close to a war that cost as many as 750,000 lives in a nation of little more than 30 million people. How did it become so overlooked?
Every generation selects events from the past that fit its current interests. There's no doubt the Lincoln assassination, less than a week later, is a huge event, but for decades after, Appomattox was just as big a symbol, in a positive way, as the assassination was [negatively]. It still exerts a powerful influence.
What's its significance, beyond the end of the fighting?
Lincoln always wanted a generous peace agreement. This was a very dangerous time, the end of a war and the beginning of Reconstruction, and all we have to do is pick up a newspaper and see other civil wars that never seem to end to think about how much worse it could have been. There would be no massive retaliation, no treason trials. Soldiers could go home with their horses. At Lincoln's meetings with Grant and [Gen. William T.] Sherman, in March 1865, he said, “Let 'em up easy.” ...